How to help someone with OCD effectively
Category: Better Mood | Author and Publisher: Elly Prior | First published: 22-07-2014 | Modified: 21-12-2018
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That someone could be your partner
You want to help someone with OCD.
Maybe you're living with- or dating that person and you just don't know how what to think of it or how to handle it. Or you want to know how to help someone in your social circle or at work.
In this article, I'm talking about the affect ocd has on a couple relationship, but much of my advice applies in other situations too.
You may well be feeling alone with it all, and wondering if the two of you can beat it.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is very common and many a person has found themselves in a very similar position to yours.
If you're in a relationship with someone with OCD, I know that your needs are very likely to have come second to those of your partner. Not so here!
Watch the video to get some immediate tips...
Watch this short video for some immediate tips
Then read this article for more information on how to help someone with OCD...
What do I know?
During my years as a counsellor I've treated many people who were suffering from OCD.
Interestingly they tended not to talk much about what it meant to their partners unless invited to do so. Yet I knew how much their spouse or partner would have felt caught up in all that goes hand-in-hand with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
If I suggested that it may be an idea for me to see their partner too, they would - understandably and unsurprisingly - be quite reluctant.
If they came as a couple presenting with relationship problems, the OCD would often be presented as secondary to all the other issues. It was frequently minimised and at times preferably not discussed at all. I had to be really empathic - gently acknowledging and accepting their feelings of shame, guilt and helplessness.
When you want to help someone with OCD, you need to know what it is first
Here's an explanation of what OCD is, and what its symptoms are:
Someone suffering from OCD will have an obsession. They may, for instance, be obsessed with the need to prevent some imagined ‘disaster’.
For example, they could worry endlessly about loved ones falling ill or dying, or that they themselves will be punished (religious and moral overtones), or any other - in their own eyes and the eyes of their loved ones - ‘silly’ problem.
Their obsessive thoughts, which are always at the forefront of their mind, create an enormous amount of anxiety.
To keep those thoughts and the resulting anxiety in check, the person affected by this condition develops rituals. They believe that their particular ritual will prevent the disaster from happening. The completion of a ritual brings some relief, albeit only temporarily.
Sadly, those horrible symptoms - the thoughts, the anxiety and the compulsions - return often with ever-increasing vengeance.
The definition of OCD
A psychiatric disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions, such as cleaning, checking, counting, or hoarding.*
Here's a really good explanation of what OCD is (I don't agree with the suggested treatments though)...
Now you know what OCD is, let's look at what it means in terms of behaviour...
What fears, doubts and rituals are you aware of?
What is compulsive behaviour?
An OCD sufferer will want to strictly adhere to their often increasingly elaborate rituals. Any deviation may mean it 'won't work' and that they'll be punished, or their loved ones will suffer.
That can mean that they need to, for example...
- keep on top of imagined bacterial overload
- smooth every crease in their clothing
- touch things a set number of times regardless of whom they're with
- avoid walking on this, that or the other, regardless of where they are
- wash themselves or their clothes endlessly and take 'forever' to get ready
- count or otherwise obsess about numbers, letters or signs - symmetry and order are essential for them
- check windows, gas stoves, door locks, flick light-switches, etc
- hoard - need I say more!
And whatever their obsession, they often feel the need to be constantly reassured. All of this compulsive behaviour can completely take over their life - and potentially yours too.
You can perhaps see now how difficult it can be to beat the OCD and what an unhappy, pointless daily fight and waste of energy it is for all concerned.
At one end of the scale, most of us will have leant towards a bit of obsessive thinking and behaving.
I remember as a child I had to avoid two steps on the stairs to prevent the witch from taking up residence under my bed and grabbing my legs as I got in and out!
At the other end of the scale full-blown OCD is an unimaginably torturous and consuming mental health problem.
Assuming that your partner does indeed have OCD, he or she is ill and needs understanding, but also boundaries. They, or rather - the OCD - needs treatment. The OCD must not be allowed to rule the roost.
Most of all, your partner's innate resources - their talents and positive characteristics - as well as their desires, dreams, goals, aims, etc should take centre-stage again in their life! They themselves are not the problem - the OCD is. The thoughts and rituals happen in a trance-state.
You as a partner need empathy, education and understanding too. You need information on how you can help someone with OCD, whether that be to love that special person - or to leave.
The length of your relationship and the severity of the problem will determine to what extent you remain committed. I can so imagine how worried you may be feeling.
And you may just recognise yourself in any of the following...
Helping someone with OCD?
Here's how the obsession can become a joint problem
10 Steps away from a breakup or seeking help
Here is how you may have got caught up, in order of severity:
- You’re beginning to notice some odd behaviour, but nothing to seriously worry you.
- You're increasingly aware of omissions, disappearances or odd behaviours for which your partner has mildly odd explanations.
- Your partner is slowly letting you in on their secret - that they are suffering from OCD. They may not be sharing the full extent of their problem yet.
- You're concerned and you're doing some research to understand better and to try and help your partner, as well as to reassure yourself.
- You're trying to get to the bottom of things and asking your partner/spouse more questions, but suspect you're getting half-truths. You’re now becoming somewhat irritated.
- You're now getting really bothered by their behaviour and concerned for their well-being. You do all you possibly can to 'help' them (or, depending on the length of your relationship, you may be considering breaking up).
- Slowly you're beginning to cotton on to how serious the problem really is, and you may feel torn between doing what you're asked to do and rebelling - refusing to get involved in the 'silly' rituals. Yet the next moment you may be giving in again because it's just easier that way.
- You’re becoming irritated because your partner's thinking and behaviour is so ‘ridiculous’.
- The two of you are arguing more and more about the endless rituals and how the obsessive compulsive disorder is affecting your lives in general.
- Depending on the length and the general state of your relationship you may be considering breaking up. You may simply have run out of steam. Or you're now insisting on getting help.
A little later on in the article, there's more about how the effects of this mental health problem may be affecting you personally.
But first - are you helping or hindering?
Could it be that you're not helping without realising it?
Being aware that your partner has OCD, you may - certainly initially - want to do all you can to help her or him.
You support and help them with their rituals, because they feel so much better for it. You feel good - it feels great to be needed - and your partner is happier that way. And really... anything you can do to reduce their anxiety makes life easier for you too.
Then further down the line you 'help'...
... for the sake of keeping the peace
... simply to get out of the door quicker than you might without giving in
... because you’ve tried all the arguments; you’ve ‘proven’ that the rituals don’t actually help or can be reduced, but your partner still hasn't accepted this
You are in fact 'aiding' the OCD, not helping your partner!
Yep, I know that may be a tough one to understand.
You're trying to help someone with OCD, but how do you feel?
At this stage you may not even be fully aware of how much you're part of the OCD.
However, your partner is now not the only one suffering - you may be suffering too...
- It may seem that you can’t have a ‘normal’ life, and perhaps you're increasingly resenting this.
- You can’t go out together, or your partner makes it difficult for you to go out by yourself, because you end up feeling guilty.
- You may feel shown-up when other people notice your partner's odd behaviour.
- At the same time you may feel guilty, like somehow you're not getting it 'right' and therefore you're adding to the problem.
- You may feel increasingly miffed about feeling controlled by your partner.
- You may have found yourself telling lies about what you have and have not done, just to avoid an argument and worsening the situation.
- You may be losing touch with your friends, your hobbies, your interests and maybe even your sense of self.
- You may often just give in, despite yourself - life is easier when you just allow your partner to do whatever it takes to to keep her or him calm and in control.
In love with someone with OCD?
You may well be committed to your partner. You love her or him, perhaps you have children, a house and a mortgage. One way or another the two of your are 'in it' together, regardless of whatever problems you encounter.
But, sadly, some people in your situation begin to feel trapped, because...
... the OCD has become worse over time
... they're done with all the arguing and there appears to be no let up. In fact, arguing causes stress which in return is likely to worsen the symptoms of OCD.
... they feel desperate and alone and the very person they should be able to talk too is having a really hard time themselves.
It may seem to you too like your partner is so absorbed by their own problems that they barely have time for anything that bothers you personally.
On top of that, their suffering may make it all the more difficult to 'complain' about anything yourself.
Possibly, sadly, the OCD is making you toy with thoughts about ending your relationship and leaving your partner.
There's more to your relationship than the OCD
How to really help someone with OCD
4 Steps to taking control - together you can beat OCD
Step 1 - Replace judgment with empathy
To beat OCD it's first of all really important to get a real insight into what it's like to suffer from OCD. So, suspend your irritation and judgement and walk that imaginary mile in your partner's shoes.
10 Reasons why suffering from OCD can be a living hell
Your partner lives and - even if it doesn't look like it - tries to deal with...
- ever-increasing anxiety about their own and their loved-ones' well-being.
- knowing they’re having a negative impact on other people’s lives.
- feeling powerless and completely unable to prevent the pain of their loved ones, even when they realise that the impact on their loved ones is nothing short of catastrophic.
- feeling at the same time let down by 'insensitive' friends and family, who have no idea what it's like to have these obsessions.
- feeling guilty and ashamed, living to a large extent a secret life.
- feeling mad, stupid, frightened and alone, living in fear of losing their sanity, but powerless to do anything about it.
- feeling totally out of control, scared about their future and even suicidal once the problem has really taken hold.
- feeling hopeless at the thought of having another treatment 'fail' - if they have had any at all.
- longing for a chance to feel 'normal' and 'themselves' again, although they may have no idea who they really are.
- not seeing a future for themselves, as new situations and new routines only cause an enormous amount of anxiety. The very thought of a change causes anticipatory anxiety which in turn notches up the ritualistic behaviour.
It's pretty horrendous, isn't it? But, it's no one's 'fault', and you cannot cure it!
There is much you can do though that's not related to the OCD - see my Complete Guide to Saving Your Relationship.
You can make it worse though by losing control of your anger and being abusive (See links below).
Step 2 - Hold on to hope!
OCD can be treated (notice I'm deliberately separating the problem from the person!), though expecting a complete cure may be unrealistic. However, with treatment it can become a very 'manageable' condition.
Here is what is available:
- Suggested treatments often focus on transforming behaviour, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I don't like that personally - it can mean focussing too much on the problem and not enough on the person. However, it may be all that is available where you are and it can certainly help.
- It is also very important to consider your diet. What you eat, and don't eat, affects your physical well-being, which I'm sure you're well-aware off. But, did you know that our diet also affects our mental well-being? Did you know how important the health of our gut is to our mind/body? You might, for example, want to research the role of gluten. Could your partner be sensitive/allergic to gluten?
- No doubt your partner has been offered medication. I want you to be quite clear that long-term medication (See Dr Kelly Brogan's website) is likely to lead to further problems!
- Yoga and meditation have been shown to be very effective
With the right kind of help your partner/spouse and you can live normal lives again. Be aware though that you'll both have different ideas of what 'normal' is - just like every single one of us!
Step 3 - Do what really helps you both
10 Pieces of advice to beat the OCD together
- You, more than anyone else perhaps, know your partner's personal qualities, the reasons you fell in love with her/him. You (hopefully) know what they would most like to accomplish, what they've achieved and what their strengths are. Herein lies your most important task: Focus and comment on those - every day. Love them and celebrate them. They are what makes your partner unique.
- Separate the OCD from the person: your partner isn’t the problem - the OCD is.
- Challenge - very gently but firmly - any lies without emphasising them. Just state what you've noticed about a particular event/behaviour and move on.
- Have OCD-free zones, like meals or times, etc. Set times when there's to be no talking about the condition at all. Be sure to focus on happy, positive events, plans and memories instead.
- Do all you can to encourage them to access help, or re-acces therapy or counselling from an expert in the condition.
- Ensure you are meeting your own emotional needs in balance (See links below)
- Be sure that you do spend time on things you love doing - within reason of course. Pick up that forgotten interest again, meet with your friends, or even just go for a walk
- Take my relationship test to find out what does work really well in your relationship and what aspects need some work. You'll also find out if there really isn’t much hope of rebuilding your relationship and if it would be fairer to step out, rather than it becoming abusive because of your irritation and anger with your partner due to their mental health problem.
- Remind yourself frequently that your partner goes into obsessive ‘trance’ states (see links below), which in itself is a very natural occurrence. You, me and everyone else go in out and out of a trance all throughout the day.
- Start making changes today with the support of a mental health/relationship counsellor. Talk to an online expert right now.
Step 4 - What not to do
It is really important that you don't become an 'enabler' - meaning you co-create conditions in which the disorder can take hold and become worse:
6 Ways to avoid becoming an 'enabler'
- Don’t allow the 'secrets' to go unnoticed.
- Don't accept diversions and lies about why they would want to do or avoid something.
- Do not allow yourself to get drawn into any of the rituals. Don't make a big deal out of it - just very gently put your foot down without elaboration or accusation.
- Don't lose your rag. Stay calm however challenging that may be. Practice makes perfect!
- Don’t talk in terms of "good days" or "bad days". Every day is a good day, it's just that the OCD rears its head more on some days than others. That doesn't mean that it can't be a happy day for a whole host of other reasons.
- Don't allow lengthy explanations and conversations about OCD. Instead, gently change the subject (remember my comments in the previous section!). There's no need to keep repeating yourself - it only gives your partner another opportunity to focus on the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
I so hope all of the tips and advice in this article will help both you and your partner get your life together back on track, without the OCD derailing you at every opportunity. I promise you, it can be done!
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Your Essential Emotional Needs
Human Givens Therapy
Dealing with a Nervous Breakdown
Tips to Relieve Stress
Depression in Men
Anger Management Problems
Signs of an Abusive Relationship
Other helpful links
BPS Research Digest: Repeatedly watching a video of themselves...
The OCD cure you haven't heard
International OCD Foundation
Do you need help?
Talk to an online counsellor...
Your problem is never too small or too big, too silly or too complicated to ask for help from a licensed therapist...